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Karl Marx in the shadow of the Charles Darwin Year 2009 (Part I)

“Charles Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature upon our planet. Marx is the discoverer of the fundamental law according to which human history moves and develops itself, a law so simple and self-evident that its simple enunciation is almost sufficient to secure assent.” (Friedrich Engels) [1]

“Two scientists can hardly be named who have, in the second half of the 19th century, dominated the human mind to a greater degree than Darwin and Marx. Their teachings revolutionized the conception that the great masses had about the world. For decades their names have been on the tongues of everybody, and their teachings have become the central point of the mental struggles which accompany the social struggles of today. The cause of this lies primarily in the highly scientific contents of their teachings.” (Anton Pannekoek) [2]

1. Introduction

Human species have existed for over 2 000 000 years. The last common ancestors of all actual human beings lived some 200 000 years ago. Yet it was only 250 years ago, in 1759, that the German embryologist Caspar Friedrich Wolff openly dared to speculate against the fixity of species and propose common descend. [3] And only 200 years ago, in 1809, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck published his Zoological Philosophy, a first attempt to give a scientific framework for what was then called transmutation [4]. 1809 was also the year in which Charles Darwin was born ; at the age of fifty he published in October 1859 his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, [5] presenting a first general theory of the development of life. The contemplative and humanist man of science wanted his theory to be judged by its pure scientific merits, was very cautious about religious prejudices it might meet, and although he felt very concerned by the social question he decidedly never actively implied in any movement.

Yet, in spite of himself, his theory immediately became subject of very political debate. It was not a complete coincidence that also in 1859 the Liberal Party in Great Britain was formed with its defence of equality of individual opportunities through institutional reform : may the best win, down with the aristocrat privileges of landed property and too bad for the losers ! Besides many other things, liberalism advocated a general social policy, health services, education, public libraries, rehabilitation of prostitutes and, last but not least, birth control for the poor. The liberal bourgeoisie believed in progress through technical solutions for all problems. The natural “Survival of the Fittest” [6] between human individuals would be hampered by useless legal restriction. After the publication of The Origin of Species, the book as well as Charles Darwin himself were identified with this liberal movement and in turn the British liberals made use most of all of the full title of his book to propagate their own political philosophy. Charles Darwin, of all people, was highly critical about how his work was conceived as became clear in 1871, when he published The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, and a year later with The expression of the emotions in man and animals. They were largely ignored.

Just a few months earlier the same year 1859 Karl Marx had published his Contribution to the Critic of Political Economy, presenting a general theory of the development of human society applied to the capitalist mode of production. It was the result not only of a great intellectual exploit, but also of the political movement of the proletariat for emancipation to which he wanted to contribute ; “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways ; the point is to change it” [7]. Unlike Charles Darwin, Karl Marx professed to a political movement : the self-emancipation of the proletariat. But he also wrote : “Every opinion based on scientific criticism I welcome.” [8]

Fifty years later, in 1909, Anton Pannekoek published Marxism and Darwinism, resuming half a century of debates in the workers’ movement on the subject, clearly defining the respective scopes of application and the scientific as well as political significance of both : the one for our understanding of living nature, the other for human society, but clearly in continuity with and complementing each other, and both revolutionizing our understanding of the world. [9] He also noted how Darwin’s theory of evolution, from its very beginning, was distorted in order to be capable to exploit it against the working class [10] while it was opposed in its proper form because of its possible social implications. [11]

Today, of all these anniversaries, only the birth year of Charles Darwin and publication of The Origin of Species are object to media attention. There are, of course, the different schools of Creationism and Intelligent Design actively campaigning against the theory of evolution. [12] There are also the humanist Darwinians, defending western democracy, religious tolerance and the separation of Church and State, [13] sometimes, but not necessarily, timidly referring to Marxism, opposing themselves to teaching religious prejudices in biology classes and defending teaching genuine science. And there are the even so humanist neo-Darwinian atheists, often socio-biologists and evolutionary psychologists, warning us about the dangers of religion and irrationality, generally rejecting Marxism. [14] Most leftists who claim to be Marxian defend Darwinism against religion while rejecting socio-biology and evolutionary psychology all together as not very politically correct, [15] mostly on moral grounds. [16] They all have arguments, often very attractive ones.

Karl Marx is not out of the picture, on the contrary. The crash of the stock exchange since 2008 foreshadowed an economic crisis, for its length and depth, comparable to the one of the 1930’s. This crisis itself was foreshadowed by a fall of the profit rate since 2005. After a long absence, the works of Karl Marx are back on the shelves in the bookstores in new editions.

There are simple questions which urgently need an answer : if our capacity to take our fate into our own hands is effectively rooted in our biology and ethology, how then does this relate to the historically developing relations of production and reproduction which we do not control, but in which we seem to be imprisoned ? How come, that with all the science and technology, all the available skills and knowledge, no end has yet been made to poverty, exploitation, uncertainty of existence and war ? How is it possible that nature is still being exploited rather than mastered, tending not just towards an ecologic but also a demographic collapse ? Where are the forces in society which not only can, but which will be compelled to revolt, just to survive and offer a better future to a next generation ? When these questions are posed it is very hard to ignore the names of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx.

Friedrich Engels did not need many words to demystify what at first sight seemed so troublesome in the main work of Charles Darwin. In 1865 he wrote to the liberal democrat Friedrich Albert Lange, who, defending his own version of Darwinism, declared capitalism to be in accordance with nature :
“it is to the everlasting disgrace of modern bourgeois development that it has not yet progressed beyond the economic forms of the animal kingdom. The so-called ‘economic laws’ are not eternal laws of nature but historical laws that appear and disappear, and the code of modern political economy, insofar as the economists have drawn it up correctly and objectively, is for us merely a summary of the laws and conditions in which modern bourgeois society can exist, in a word : its conditions of production and exchange expressed and summed up abstractly. For us, therefore, none of these laws, insofar as it is an expression of purely bourgeois relations, is older than modern bourgeois society ; those which have been more or less valid for all previous history, are thus only an expression of such relations as are common to all forms of society based upon class rule and class exploitation.” [17]

The actual excitement about both Marxism and Darwinism can hardly be a surprise as for a century and a half they have posed the most fundamental questions of humanity and both have been distorted to fit the ideological needs of dominant classes all over the world.

The name of Charles Darwin and his theory have been abused for a vertical scaling of human beings in relation to intelligence coupled to race, to justify discrimination on the ground of gender ; it has been abused to propagate eugenics and genocide, war and imperialism, not only under German national-socialism and Italian fascism, but also by very democratic states like for instance those of the USA, Sweden and Switzerland. [18] His words have been twisted and bent to make them fit ideologies aiming at sterilising or killing anyone considered to be “inferior” or “degenerate”. These distortions of his theory have largely contributed to its rejection, but they never touched the theory itself.

Charles Darwin never missed an opportunity to criticise the eugenics of his half-cousin Sir Francis Galton, [19] nor what was later called social-Darwinism inspired by the not at all Darwinian Herbert Spencer, [20] with his idea that malicious nature would always be stronger than benevolent nurture ; that this was, whatever we do, how it functioned ; and that a liberal, minimal state should be there to keep everybody in line.

Long before he published the theory which made him famous, Charles Darwin wrote :

“It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen : if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin ; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see [...]. Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter ; what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change ! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children – those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own – being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder ! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth ! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble [...].” [21]

And years later he added :

“Important as the struggle for existence has been and even still is, yet as far as the highest part of man’s nature is concerned there are other agencies more important. For the moral qualities are advanced, either directly of indirectly, much more through the effects of habit, the reasoning powers, instruction, &c. than through natural selection ; though to this latter agency the social instincts, which afforded the basis for the development of the moral sense, may be safely attributed.” [22]

He also objected to conclusions so often drawn from his theory :

“I have received, in a Manchester newspaper, rather a good squib, showing that I have proved “might is right,” and therefore that Napoleon is right, and every cheating tradesman is also right.” [23]

The name of Karl Marx too has been abused to justify brutal and horrifying repression and the death camps of Stalinism and Maoism in the caricatures of state-capitalism of the former imperialist Eastern Bloc, China, Cuba and Cambodia, not to mention all the others. The implosion of the Eastern Bloc in 1990 is supposed to have constituted the final proof that communism was death, that Marxism was bankrupt and that the working class had disappeared. By then, pseudo-scientific Lysenkoism, which for a long time was presented as “Marxian biology” in the former Eastern Bloc, and also outside of it by the “fellow travellers” of Stalinism, had already gone astray. [24] The collapse of Stalinism made an end to the greatest lie of history, the idea of the possibility of the “construction of socialism in one country”, which was nothing but a pretext for another form of nationalism and imperialism. The bankruptcy of Stalinism opened up the way for a better understanding of what Karl Marx really put forward.

The Twentieth Century has shown how the greatest discoveries can be and were distorted into pseudo-scientific ideologies which were turned against humanity as a whole in the interest of a few and the maintenance of an outlived social system. But as the questions do not disappear, both Darwinism and Marxism have survived and are more attractive than ever.

The last fifty years the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory, founded in the middle of the Second World War, has been presented as very humanist. It was a mixture of real scientific needs and political-ideological needs against Nazism and Stalinism in order to defend better the Western Bloc with its bourgeois democracy. It would have done away with eugenics and social-Darwinism. Gregor Mendel’s laws of heredity, August Weismann’s germ plasm, Hugo de Vries’ mutations, and finally Willi Hennig’s cladistics, they were all integrated into one magnificent synthesis and effectively, enormous advances were made, notably and most spectacular in the field of genetics. Yet there are very serious question to be posed.

Biologists tend to look at human society and human beings from a merely biological perspective, and when they do not dispose of a clear understanding of the development of human society, which anyway is outside of their professional scope, they also inevitably tend to bring their own social prejudices back into their natural science. A ruling class with historical limitations, with an interest in the extraction of surplus-labour while at the same time excluding an ever greater part of humanity from exploitation and thus from the essentials of social life of humanity, will inevitably develop a limited, short-sighted understanding, a false consciousness of both nature as well as human society. In this sense, science is conditioned by the society that produces it, and it comes down to begging for further disasters and it needs to be criticised from both a Marxian as well as from a Darwinian perspective.

After a century and a half, it is clearer than ever that is even difficult to understand the one without the other. The real achievements of the natural sciences do not belong to any social class in particular. In this sense August Bebel wrote that “Darwinism, like every true science, is an eminently democratic science.” [25] When science is there for everybody to study, first of all, not everybody has the means nor the background to appreciate or judge the real progress made and to distinguish it from the social prejudices with which it is received, and secondly, science ever more is an activity undertaken less by individuals than by big institutions, relying on great sums of money which are granted only for specific reasons : the mere need for new technology, or simple ideological needs.

Karl Marx wrote that in his analysis of capitalism : “the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history.” [26] This means not only that we need to understand much better the process of natural history in order to be capable to understand social development, but also that we need to see what they have in common and how they are different. While Marxians might have strong opinions about the achievements of the natural sciences, “Marxism”, very different from the Stalinist pretences, does not decide on questions of natural sciences.

Marxians have always been critical defenders of Darwinism. [27] Yet, the last hundred years the Communist Left has produced very little on the subject, or, for that matter, on natural sciences in general. Very few natural scientists were attracted to the Communist Left, and although many militants of the Communist Left seriously studied natural sciences they published very little on the subject. Decimated after the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-1923 the lessons of the events needed to be drawn in order to prepare for new battles to come and the natural sciences disappeared from the attention ; the priorities were elsewhere. To save the honour of the Communist Left, there are however exceptions. In 1946, Anton Pannekoek published Anthropogenesis, [28] analysing from a Marxian and Darwinian perspective the origin of mankind. [29]

In a series of articles an attempt will be made here to provide materials and orientations for a renewal of the debate, without concluding anything in advance, from both a Marxian as well as a Darwinian perspective. [30] The Communist Left cannot remain silent on subjects as important as the theory of evolution and human origins. It can ignore the subject only at its own discredit and confusion in its ranks through the popularity of the theories of the day. [31] This task is all the more urgent as a new generation interested in the positions of the Communist Left eagerly takes up the question and cannot any longer be satisfied by easy and shallow answers of the “old guard”. There is work to be done, not just to clarify academically, but also because it has definite repercussions for everything that is ahead of us. Is there “purpose” in nature or society ? Isn’t the real question what we want to make out of it, seeing how it functions today ?

28 March 2009, Vico.

[1Friedrich Engels, Draft of a Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx, published in La Justice, 20 March 1883. Likewise, in his Preface to the 1888 English edition of the Communist Manifesto, Engels wrote : “This proposition, which, in my opinion, is destined to do for history what Darwin’s theory has done for biology, we both of us, had been gradually approaching for some years before 1845.”

[2Anton Pannekoek, Marxism and Darwinism, Chapter I., Darwinism, see http://www.marxists.org.

[3“It was characteristic that, almost simultaneously with Kant’s attack on the eternity of the solar system, C.F. Wolff in 1759 launched the first attack on the fixity of species and proclaimed the theory of descent. But what in this case was still only a brilliant anticipation took firm shape in the hands of Oken, Lamarck, Baer, and was victoriously carried through by Darwin in 1859, exactly a hundred years later.” (Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Introduction). Caspar Friedrich Wolff is most of all known for his theory, based on meticulous empirical research, that embryo’s developed from undifferentiated cells rather than from preformed structures. He wasn’t the only one to put into doubt old speculative dogma’s by factual verification. For a short introduction to early evolutionary thought and further references, see for instance : History of evolutionary thought, at http://en.wikipedia.org.

[4How difficult it was to accept such an idea was expressed thirty years later : “At last gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.” Charles Darwin, Letter to Joseph Hooker, 1842, in Life and Letters, Vol. II, p. 23. Darwin’s works can be found in several languages at : http://darwin-online.org.uk. The ideas of the great scientist and humanist Lamarck too have been completely distorted. They are very much worth reading : see http://www.lamarck.cnrs.fr/

[5It was preceded by the reading of two papers before the Linnean Society of Charles Darwin and the cofounder of evolutionary theory, the socialist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858, both containing basically the same idea, see : the Alfred Russel Wallace Page at : http://www.wku.edu/~smithch/index1.htm.

[6The term was coined by Herbert Spencer in 1862 after having read The Origin of Species.

[7Karl Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach, 1845, first published 1888.

[8Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, 1867, Preface to the first German Edition.

[9Marxism and Darwinism was published in German and Dutch (1909), Estonian (1910), English (1912), Ukrainian (1919), Spanish (1937) and Rumanian (1945). As Anton Pannekoek gave little explicit reference to his Marxian predecessors, these will be quoted here more extensively, also to reconstitute what Marxians held before the area of the Stalinist distortions of their positions. After a whole century, this work needs to be updated and certainly cannot be considered to represent the last word in Marxian thinking on the subject.

[10Thus Ernst Haeckel wrote : “Darwinism – the theory of selection – is, in the eyes of an unprejudiced critic, an aristocratic principle, consisting in the survival of the fittest.” (Quoted in August Bebel, The Darwinian Theory and Socialism, 1899). As we will see, Charles Darwin held a very different opinion.

[11Rudolf Virchow, opposing the radical anti-clerical ‘monist’ materialists of his days, and alluding to the Paris’ Commune of 1871, said in 1877 : “Be careful of this theory, for this theory is very nearly related to the theory that caused so much dread in our neighbouring country.” (50th Congress of German natural scientists and medical doctors, 22 September 1877, quoted in Anton Pannekoek, Marxism and Darwinism, chapter Darwinism versus Socialism). Charles Darwin made the remark : “What a foolish idea seems to prevail in Germany on the connection between Socialism and Evolution through Natural Selection.”(Charles Darwin to Dr Scherzer, 26 December 1879, in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter, 1887, Vol. 3, p. 236-237).

[12Ronald Reagan, during his victorious US-presidential campaign in 1980, could even seriously (?) state : “Well, it’s a theory – it is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science and is not yet believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it was once believed.”

[13Notably Stephen Jay Gould, Hen’s teeth and horses toes, 1983, and Rocks of Ages, Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, 2002. A lot of material and debate can be found at : http://www.talkorigins.org.

[14See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2006, of which already 1,5 million copies are claimed to have been sold (http://www.richarddawkins.net/).

[15See Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin and Leon Kamin, Not in our Genes, 1984 ; and Steven Rose and Hilary Rose, Alas Poor Darwin : Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology, 2000. It is not good enough to denounce socio-biology and evolutionary psychology as “reactionary” ; they too need to be judged for their scientific merits.

[16A clear exception is Elaine Morgan, Pinkers List, 2005, the very first book to read in the Darwin year, see http://www.elainemorgan.org/.

[17Friedrich Engels to Friedrich Albert Lange, 29 March 1865. Marx, clearly also having Herbert Spencer in mind, wrote to Ludwig Kugelmann, 27 June 1870, “Herr Lange, you see, has made a great discovery. The whole of history can be brought under a single great natural law. This natural law is the phrase (in this application Darwin’s expression becomes nothing but a phrase) ‘the struggle for life.’ And the content of this phrase is the Malthusian law of population, or rather over-population. So instead of analysing the struggle for life as represented historically in varying and definite forms of society, all that has to be done is to translate every concrete struggle into the phrase ‘struggle for life’ and this phrase itself into the Malthusian population fantasy. One must admit that this is a very impressive method – for staggering sham scientific bombastic ignorance and intellectual laziness.” As for Malthusianism, Darwin nor Wallace, however they were inspired by it for biology, ever applied it to human society. Also see Daniel P. Todes, Darwin without Malthus ; The Struggle for Existence in Russian Evolutionary Thought, 1989 ; this book is of importance as it give a lot of material for putting into perspective both the theories of the anarchist Piotr Kropotkin as well as elements which contributed to the rise of Lysenkoism in Russia. On Piotr Kropotkin and his misconceived but not foolish “Mutual Aid” (1902), already stressed by Friedrich Engels many years earlier, also see Stephen Jay Gould, Kropotkin was not a crackpot, in Bully for Brontosaurus, 7, 22.

[18See to begin with Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 1981.

[19Sir Francis Galton, who launched a lot of hypotheses which might have seemed plausible at the time, initiated the modern “nature versus nurture” debate. Galton rejected the “soft inheritence” of Lamarckism, unlike Darwin himself by lack of enough good arguments, and defended “hard inheritence” through selection alone, also unlike Darwin himself, see : http://galton.org.

[20Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics : The Man versus The State (1851), with all his faith of gradual progress in nature and society, was published years before The Origin of Species. Darwin’s book tended to be read as an extension of Herbert Spencer’s social evolutionism. In 1862 Spencer published his First Principles of a New System of Philosophy, in which, inspired by Darwin, he launched the much challenged slogan “Survival of the Fittest”, which was subsequently, and reluctantly, copied by Charles Darwin. See http://oll.libertyfund.org. At the end of his life, Darwin complained that whatever he would have called it, anyway it would have made no difference to those who did not want to understand it.

[21Voyage of the Beagle, 1845, Chapter XXI, Mauritius To England, p. 500.

[22Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871, Vol. II, p. 404.

[23Charles Darwin to Charles Lyell, January 1860, Life and Letters, Vol. II, p. 262. That wasn’t only true in Manchester : “Alas for Darwin ! If he were alive, he would experience the drawbacks of popularity. French men are just now fathering on him a “new race of small carnivora, that avail themselves of the excellent invention of the struggle for life, as a scientific excuse for every sort of villainy.”” (Paul Lafargue, Darwinism on the French Stage, in Time, February 1890, p. 149 and 156, http://www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue/1890/02/darwin.htm).

[24For at least two western biologists the rise of Lysenkoism contributed to their breaking with Stalinism : J.B.S. Haldane in 1950 and John Maynard Smith in 1956 ; both contributed to evolutionary theory and are worth reading.

[25August Bebel, Woman and Socialism, Woman at the Present, Day, Chapter XIV, The Struggle of Women for Education, 4, Darwinism and the Condition of Society.

[26Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Preface to the second edition.

[27See particularly Friedrich Engels, Herr Eugen Dühring, 1878, and his notes published under the title Dialectics of Nature, published for the first time as late as 1925 in Russian and German, and in English only in 1934 ; the crucial fragment The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, with the famous “Lamarckian shortcut” was published for the first time in 1896 in Die Neue Zeit.

[28Published in Dutch (1945), English (1953) and Esperanto (1978) ; this effort too needs to be updated.

[29We note that there are many more texts by Anton Pannekoek on the subject, for instance, Natural Sciences and Society, published in Dutch (1946) and French (1969).

[30In order to renew this debate, it seems first of all necessary to republish the before mentioned works, and to prepare more translations in order to open up the debate internationally. As for the first, both Marxism and Darwinism as well as Anthropogenesis will be reedited in English and Dutch on the website of Controversies, with new explanatory notes and references, while new French translations are being prepared. As for the last, we make an appeal to our readers to help us to provide the texts in more languages, either by publishing existing translations or by making new ones.

[31More in particular : vulgar materialism as in the works of for instance António Rosa Damásio and so many other neurologists who still write in the good old “monist” tradition of liberal atheists and reductionists like “Herr” Karl Vogt, Ludwig Büchner and Jakob Moleschott. It was in 1854 that Karl Vogt wrote : “The brain secretes thought as the stomach secretes gastric juices, the liver bile, and the kidneys urine.” When it is always interesting to know more about how our brains function ; it is also important to remember that we think, and that our brains do not do our thinking for us. The renewed popularity of the vitalist psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud will be addressed in a series starting in the next issue of Controversies.